Thursday, October 2, 2008

[Review] DCC The Saga of the Rat King

The Saga of the Rat King

Authors: Jeffery Quinn, Harley Stroh, and Jon Hershberger.
Contents: 64 soft bound black and white pages, 1 title page, 56 pages of adventure, 4 pages of handouts, 2 pages of advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Goodman Games.
Product Code: GMGGC08.
Retail Price: £8.99 or $15.99.


A compilation of three thematically linked adventures for 4-6 characters of levels 1-6, each instalment being intended for a shorter and progressively higher power range. The first and last of these are conversions of Dungeon Crawl Classics #1 Idylls of the Rat King and #27 Revenge of the Rat King, designed and written for third edition by Jeffery Quinn and Harley Stroh, respectively. The module that now bridges these two, Scourge of Silverton, was authored specially for this compilation by Jon Hershberger, who also did the first edition conversion work.

As is the case with all of the adventures in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, the Saga of the Rat King is nominally set in the world of Áereth, but is intended to be easily adapted to any conventional swords & sorcery campaign milieu. Parts one and two take place near to the small mining settlement of Silverton, which receives around a page of exposition in the first appendix; part three takes place in, or rather beneath, the free city of Soulgrave, which is left undescribed beyond a few brief details. The adventures are tied together by the intrigues of the vengeful scions of the Gannu family; disinherited and cursed to live as wererats, their purpose is both revenge and redress.

The physical presentation of the compilation is very familiar and intentionally recalls the classic first edition aesthetic. The artwork is mostly reproduced from the original modules, the exceptions being three new pieces for Scourge of Silverton and the cover illustration, which is by Jeff Dee. The original cover art by Jim Holloway for Idylls of the Rat King and the original and alternative cover for Revenge of the Rat King also feature as interior illustrations. I particularly like the drawing of the great rat idol being despoiled by adventurers, a laudable homage.

Each part of the saga is provided with an introduction, summary, and background, as well as advice for the game master regarding scaling the difficulty, involving the player characters and dealing with their possible defeat and death. These individually take up two to three pages of text and clearly relate all the intended material. They are followed by the various encounter area descriptions, each of which contains information to be immediately conveyed to the players and a separate section for the game master. All handouts and maps are found at the end of the module, except the map for Revenge of the Rat King, which is attractively printed in black and white on the inside covers. The text is easy to read and I was pleased to see that the wide margins evident in previous first edition conversions have been reduced from three quarters of an inch to three eighths.

I was also gratified to note that the tendency to fully repeat monster statistics whenever and wherever they appear has almost entirely vanished. In some cases they could have been shorter still, as with the triple identical listings for the wererats in Idylls of the Rat King, and in others the necessity of listing variant possessions is sometimes overlooked, as with the crossbow armed goblins in area 1-5 of the same adventure. However, these are fairly minor editorial quibbles and do not detract very much from the intended brevity and functionality of the compilation.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of converting third edition adventures to first edition is how to approach task resolution. In the case of Saga of the Rat King, this has for the most part been left open; secret doors and hidden items are noted, but the method of their discovery is not specified. This is an excellent approach for experienced game masters, who may assign a reasonable probability to the finding of such things as a result of a general and abstracted search, or allow the player characters to discover them by interacting directly with their imagined surroundings. It might be more daunting for less seasoned game masters, but the same answers are available in the rulebooks. However, towards the end of the compilation, some of the encounter areas begin to suggest or call for attribute checks on 1d20, generally in order to maintain balance, jump or swim. Whilst these are reasonable task resolution methods, I think their inclusion was unnecessary.

Idylls of the Rat King

The first adventure in the compilation is a four level dungeon crawl through what was once an abandoned mine, but now serves as a bandit lair. There are two pages of handouts, two pages of maps, and twenty-three pages of text that detail sixty encounter areas. In the original version, the bandits were a goblin clan that Lawrence Gannu had subverted to his purposes by means of his curse. The conversion takes the time to briefly explain that, since only humans are susceptible to becoming wererats under first edition rules, it was necessary to diversify the bandits to include half-orcs and humans. At the behest of the eldest son of the Gannu family, these have been attacking caravans and seizing silver shipments, which is what draws the interest of the player characters.

As might be expected of the first adventure in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, this is a very traditional and straightforward affair. The dungeon rooms are uniformly rectangular or square, and the passageways are all ten feet wide and turn at ninety degree angles. There are numerous traps and secret doors, plenty of directional choices and the constant threat of wandering monsters. The first two levels of the mine are principally defended by goblins, half-orcs and men, though a few wererats are present on the second level; giant rats may be encountered, as might some stray zombies or a small group of skeletons. In the original version there were also several groups of goblin women and children, which have been replaced in the conversion with slaves and half-orc taskmasters. I was glad of this, as my feeling is that the inclusion of such dependents only serves to pointlessly humanise and undermine the monstrous perception of goblins.

I think some of the encounters rung a little false, such as the secret vault that contains an empty locked and trapped chest, whilst the true treasure, a silver long sword +1, is hidden beneath a loose flagstone. According to the area description, the blade was left behind by a mortally wounded fighter for others to find, which is reasonable enough, but the chest seems like a lot of unnecessary trouble for a dying man to go to. Some other encounter areas feel a little disconnected, such as the secret chamber that conceals an amulet of protection from evil; the area description tells us that Narzy Hilspek suspects the existence of such a chamber and would pay handsomely to know of it, but there is no hint of a reason as to why he would. An imaginative game master can come up with solutions to these oddities, and they can be construed positively as challenges to his creativity, but I think they could have been presented in a more inspirational manner.

The presence of undead on the wandering monster tables for the upper levels and the amusingly labelled “zombie closet” are explained by an undead mining operation on the third level of the dungeon. A human necromancer temporarily in league with the rat king is using zombies to extract silver ore. In the original version he was an evil gnome, and two of his minions were zombie badgers; the conversion has replaced these last with more conventional dwarf zombies, which makes better sense to me. The area is quite maze like, which means there is plenty of potential for wandering undead, such as skeletal ogres, to harass a slow moving party, but there are relatively few encounter areas. The necromancer is the most significant keyed hazard; the text indicates that he will attempt to bargain with the adventurers, but only with a view towards immediately betraying them. I suspect that an earlier draft presented him in a less uncompromising manner, since this is the very Narzy Hilspek who would pay to know the location of the secret chamber on the second level of the dungeon. Depending on how the player characters approached him, I would probably be inclined to have him bide his time before betraying them.

The final level of the dungeon is the abode of the rat king and his wererat minions, but unknown to them it is also the secret prison of a powerful vampire. It is quite possible that the player characters will defeat the rat king without ever discovering this additional terror, which makes for an interesting potential future plot hook. Indeed, even if released by over covetous adventurers, the vampire may become anything from a temporary ally against the wererats to a recurring villain, neither of which are mutually exclusive. Lawrence Gannu himself is a reasonably challenging foe, and since he is not inclined to flee or surrender, the adventure will either end with his death or those of the player characters.

This is a good conversion of an entertaining dungeon crawl; most of my criticisms are relatively minor and rarely detract from the functionality of the module. The dungeon maps are a bit artificial and some of the encounters a little forced, but the content is very playable and interesting. Almost all of the design choices made for the conversion have made for a better adventure and, combined with the inclusion of details such as the spies amongst the slaves, makes me wonder whether a heavier hand might have further improved upon the original. My one real complaint is that the body of the father of the rat king, Aaron Gannu, is entombed at area 4-13, as it is in the original. In the context of this compilation such a consistency question makes little sense, since Aaron Gannu is the primary villain for the remainder of the saga.

Scourge of Silverton

The adventure that links Idylls of the Rat King to Revenge of the Rat King is a fairly short affair, taking up only eight pages of text. Whilst it is intended as to form a bridge between them, it can be used independently of either with only a few minor changes. The premise of the default plot is that Marcus Gannu, half brother of Lawrence Gannu, has come to Silverton seeking revenge on the slayers of his sibling. To this end, he has taken prisoner a number of the local villagers and is purportedly holding them for ransom in the abandoned Deveraux silver mine. However, this is merely a pretext to lure the player characters into his trap; the unfortunate prisoners have already been taken to Soulgrave to be sold into slavery.

Assuming that the adventurers take the bait, they are told to deliver the ransom money to the nearby mine, where Marcus and his men await them. Whether they pay the ransom or not, it quickly becomes apparent that the hostages will not be relinquished easily. Arrayed against them are some thirty or so adversaries, mainly low level assassins and bandits, though there are also some dire wolves, a third level fighter and a dual classed cleric/magician, in addition to Marcus himself. All are lightly armoured, which allows them to effectively employ hit and fade tactics, the aim being to draw the party deep into the mine, through prepared defences and into a final killing ground.

This sort of dynamic scenario can prove quite deadly to an incautious or overconfident group of player characters, especially if a party of assassins manages to achieve surprise. Unless they manage to take out their opponents quickly at each stage, the party may find the last encounter too difficult to overcome, and their fast moving enemies will likely catch any fleeing adventurers in short order. The text indicates that any player characters captured are conveyed to the dungeons of the elder rat king, and any who are slain are resurrected and treated to the same fate, which leads directly to the third instalment of the saga.

The dungeon itself is laid out so that players have a number of directional choices, and good tactical use can be made of the environment. Particularly cunning adventurers may even manage to cut off the escape route that Marcus has planned. There is also plenty of room left explicitly for expansion, should the game master be inclined. The suggestions for wandering monsters serve as good inspiration for what might dwell in an expanded mine; a giant frog spawning ground was my first thought.

Whilst relatively brief, this is a well put together adventure that provides an interesting and extendable dungeon environment, sets up a compelling villain, and demonstrates a confident familiarity with the flexibility and potential of the first edition rules and design philosophy. A good example of this understanding in practice is the mix of class levels and hit die advancement used to effectively represent the capabilities of the villains. Producing a bridging adventure of this sort cannot have been altogether easy, but this module both serves that purpose and stands well on its own merits.

Revenge of the Rat King

The final part of the rat king saga takes up twenty-two pages all told, including two pages of handouts. There are thirty encounter areas divided into three stages, most of which are quite unavoidable and must be completed to reach the next. The central premise of this adventure is that the player characters are captured by the rat king in area 1-14, the remainder of the module being concerned with their escape from his prison. This event is considered to be so critical to the progression of the plot that the game master is advised to increase the number of wererats in the planned ambush from more than a score to as many as needed, should it look as though there are not enough to prevail.

Having read through the original, I had hoped that the conversion would dispense with the importance attached to the capture of the adventurers, and so I was disappointed to find it was still so strongly urged. A predetermined event of this sort constrains both players and game master in a way that undermines the fundamental “choices and consequences” nature of traditional adventure gaming. It would have been more aesthetically appealing to have provided the rat king with alternative courses of action, each depending on the outcome of his primary plan; if the wand of stone and earth were placed in the possession of Azrod the Dying and the capture of the player characters turned into a possible outcome, rather than a mandatory event, this adventure would have been much improved.

Whilst in terms of overall design concept I thought this was definitely the weakest instalment in the compilation, by contrast it also boasts some of the strongest set pieces. From the zombie infested collapsible cages of the slave pits to the failed clones in the workshop of the Dying One, the dungeons of the rat king are full of evocative and deadly encounters. I particularly like the rat filled swarming hole; the numerous additional rats that rain down on adventurers as they try to cross over, by means of a narrow and slippery beam, creates quite the visceral mental image. I thought it a bit of a pity that the curse of the spinner encounter area was not included in the conversion, as that was also rather good. I would quite like to see it converted as a web supplement at some point.

Although most of the dungeon runs fairly linearly, areas 2-6 to 2-8 form an adjunct, and are deliberately left open ended for the game master to expand upon. They can be reached from the main sewer by means of a large drain, and comprise a small part of an ancient and ruined necropolis; the accessible part leads to the tomb of a fallen paladin who bargained away his soul to a demon prince in return for worldly power. The strange writing and whispering demonic voices that begin if anybody reads the words aloud are well used here, creating a sense of otherworldly danger and apprehension. There is just enough information about this area to get the reader thinking about how to develop it, a solid element of first edition adventure design.

Apart from the plotted event structure, which a skilled game master should be more than capable of overcoming, this is actually rather an interesting dungeon. It is diverse and has plenty to offer by way of challenges, only really lacking a dynamic and adaptable outlook to get the best out of. A significant shortcoming by any stretch of the imagination, but hardly an insurmountable one. Whether the rat king escapes or is defeated, there are many potential plot strands left intentionally unresolved for future development, and which can be used to tie the series into the larger campaign milieu, such as Áereth or some other suitable swords & sorcery setting.

Technicalities and Errors

Conversion work is a double edged sword; editing errors in the original are usually spotted and removed, but substantial changes always run the risk of introducing new mistakes into the text. I did not spot a great many of these, but there are some, such as the notation “Ftr5/Th6/Brd3” appearing at location 2-3 on the Encounter Table on page three, or the assertion on pages twelve and forty-two that some of the wererats have a “giant fat form”, which gave me a chuckle. A less obvious error is the accidental conflating of Silverton with Soulgrave on page twenty seven, the former of which is unlikely to have much of a slave market for its own citizens. In keeping with a great many other modules, terms such as “long sword” are treated inconsistently, occasionally being rendered as “longsword”. There is also a noticeable tendency for repeat words to crop up in the writing here and there, which is a little disconcerting, and could have probably used another editorial pass.

Some of the background material was rewritten to improve cohesiveness, which is by and large an improvement on the original. However, some strangeness has resulted from some of the changes, such as the mention of a goblin shaman on page five, who no longer features in the adventure, all the goblin clerics having been converted to humans. Similarly, the half-orcs in area 2-2 fight with “suicidal devotion” because their slaves are at stake, which made more sense in the original when it was their dependents at stake. There is also the illustration on page sixteen, which depicts the original bespectacled goblin wizard in area 2-21, rather than the human magician of the conversion. More annoyingly, the title page illustration shows a crowned wererat sat upon a wooden throne, flanked by two vicious looking goblin types bearing spears; this can only be the bandit chief from area 2-18, whose goblin bodyguards have been replaced with humans. It would have been no trouble at all to have made these half-orcs, not even their hit dice would needed to have been changed.

With regards to the technical rendering of statistics, I found the notation for hit dice less than one to be unnecessarily baroque. For instance, goblin and giant rat hit die are presented in the form “HD 1-7 Hit Points” and “HD 1-4 Hit Points” respectively, which contrasts with the more concise “HD ¼, HP 1-2” used for normal rats. These would have been better rendered as “HD 1-1, HP 1-7” and “HD ½, HP 1-4” for the sake of consistency. In a similar vein, when class level is indicated, providing hit die type and number is redundant, as class type and level supersede this notation for the purposes of determining saving throws, to hit numbers, and life energy levels.

I also thought that the wererat and rat king statistics could have been briefer, more along the lines of those used for Marcus Gannu in fact, and that the ogre zombie and skeleton statistics could have done with another edit, but it is hard to say for sure as they are listed as new monsters. For the most part, excellent use is made of hit die advancement as an alternative to advancement by level and class for non player characters and monsters, but there are also occasional lapses. Most of these appear to be simple editing errors, such as the hobgoblin slavers on pages forty-three and fifty, who are listed as “Ftr1” and having “HD 1+1”, or the notable villagers of Silverton, who are variously listed as “Expert5” or “Commoner2”. The half-orc slavers in Revenge of the Rat King are a different matter, as their hit die notation shows that they were intended to be first level fighters; my complaint with regard to this is that it actually makes them weaker in terms of offensive strength than the half-orc bandits in Idylls of the Rat King, which I do not think was intended.

In terms of further minutia, the notations used for damage are often inconsistent. For instance, on pages thirty-one and thirty-two, Cedric the cleric/magician has the damage notation “2-5+1”, which should more reasonably read as “3-6” or if complete clarity is desired “1d4+2”, whilst Marcus Gannu and the bandit leader have their damage ranges listed as though using normal weapons, though both bear magical blades that should show the notations “2-9 and 2-7” or “1d8+1 and 1d6+1” respectively. It is also worth noting that whilst the rat king is listed with a rapier +2 and his minions with mundane equivalents, the weapon does not appear in the first edition rulebooks and so lacks any extant weapon versus armour modifiers; they could have been replaced with scimitars, as was done with the Tower of the Black Pearl, but this would have contradicted the cover art.


There is a lot to like about Saga of the Rat King; the production values are high, the aesthetic appealing, and the writing is good. The content is a bit variable in places, but generally strong, especially with regard to the individual set pieces; I particularly liked the encounter with the demon summoning cleric at the start of the sewers of the slavers, for instance. The conversion work has been handled skilfully and with obvious practical and theoretical knowledge of how to get the best out of first edition. I very much appreciated the open approach taken toward task resolution and willingness to present variations on the default statistics for characters and monsters.

Where I felt the compilation was at its weakest was in some of the things it carried over from the original adventures. I would have liked to have seen a greater degree of the text reworked in a way that facilitated more dynamic and less static activity on the parts of the monsters and characters arrayed against the adventurers. However, I also recognise that there is only so much that can be done with this sort of project before the adventure ceases to be recognisable as a conversion.

This is a solid first edition conversion that will make for several entertaining sessions of play, either as part of a longer campaign or within their own context. The additional material that has been included is all to the good of the whole, and the presentation is both functional and pleasing. I think I would have preferred as the cover illustration the despoiled rat idol to the rapier wielding rat king, but that is no doubt a subjective preference. The conversion work is a significant improvement over the offerings of previous years, and the content is comparable in terms of quality. Overall, I was very satisfied with this product.

Alternative Reviews: None

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

[Review] DCC The Golden Auroch/Tower of the Black Pearl

The Golden Auroch/Tower of the Black Pearl

Authors: Harley Stroh and Andrew Hind.
Contents: 24 saddle stitched black and white pages, 2 title pages, 20 pages of adventure, 1 page of handouts, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Goodman Games.
Product Code: GMGGC08-2.
Retail Price: £5.99 or $10.99.


Two distinct adventures for 4-6 characters of levels 1-2, each designed to potentially serve as the starting point for a longer campaign or be played as they are. The Golden Auroch and Tower of the Black Pearl were originally written and designed for third edition by Andrew Hind and Harley Stroh, respectively; both titles first appeared in Dungeon Crawl Classics #29 The Adventure Begins. They have been adapted for first edition by Jon Hershberger, who also did the conversion work for Iron Crypt of the Heretics and Saga of the Witch Queen.

Whilst both of these adventures are intended for use with any traditional swords & sorcery campaign setting, they each have a suggested location in the default Dungeon Crawl Classics world of Áereth. The Golden Auroch takes place on the eastern edge of the Achsfel Wastes, in the shadow of the Kitezhan mountains; the Tower of the Black Pearl lies some thousand miles and more distant, in the Straits of Ymtal. However, if it were desired to play both these adventures one after the other with the same party, it would be no great stretch to move the tower to the coastline north of the wastes.

The module is presented as a “flip book”, which is to say that it is printed in such a way that there are two front covers, each reading forward, and no back cover. The maps are not printed on the inside of the covers, which I understand to be mainly on account of the expense involved. Instead these can be found in the middle of the booklet, where the two adventures meet. The internal art is mainly taken from the original versions, but the cover pieces are entirely new; both are by Brad McDevitt, and rendered in a neo traditional monochrome style that recalls the earliest first edition offerings.

Both the Golden Auroch and Tower of the Black Pearl have their own introduction, summary, background, suggested methods of getting the player characters involved, and advice for scaling the difficulty to accommodate larger and higher level parties; these take up a page and a half of each module. In each case, a short description of the adventure location is followed by the various keyed encounter areas, which make up the bulk of the text. Every encounter is divided into information to be immediately related to the players and details reserved for the game master. The text is clearly printed, and the margins set at three eighths of an inch, which is half the width of earlier Goodman Games conversions, and results in more words to the page.

The monster and non player character statistics are suitably brief, and no space is wasted with needless repetitions, which is very much appreciated. Task resolution has mainly been well handled, all evidence of the third edition skill system has been erased, and the game master left free to determine whether to leave things up to the dice, player interaction with the environment, or a combination thereof. Some tasks are described as “extremely difficult” or “easy” and that is about all the guidance that is needed.

The flip book format is undeniably a gimmick, hearkening back to venerable predecessors, but it is also perfectly practical. The two halves feel entirely distinct and there is no need to page through the booklet to reach the second module, as there would be if they were simply bound one after the other. Whilst in general I prefer the aesthetics of a module with a front and back cover, there is no denying the functionality of the design; it is a durable product with very good production values.

The Golden Auroch

This adventure takes place amidst the desert swallowed ruins of Ur, a cursed city destroyed at the behest of a vengeful deity. Beneath the shifting sands some structures remain partially intact, not least of which is the palace turned tomb of the sorceress queen Nicrotis, wherein the golden auroch lies, long undisturbed. The premise is straightforward enough; the city state of Akkad is in the grip of a drought, and the aforementioned relic is said to have the power to end it. The player characters have undertaken to find the auroch and their guide, a man named Nebu, has brought them to the ruined city. Of course, unbeknownst to anyone, Nicrotis still dwells in her palace and, what is more, she has need of brave mortals. So, when the adventurers find themselves hopelessly outmatched against the Scourge of Ninurta, a powerful guardian set to watch over the ruins, a nearby pair of doors inexplicably open and provide a convenient means of escape.

Unlike the introductions to many other Dungeon Crawl Classics, no space in the Golden Auroch is given over to an explicit list of plot hooks for getting the player characters involved. Rather, it is simply assumed that they are seeking the relic on behalf of the prince of Akkad. There are alternative explanations offered, but they are very brief. The adventure begins at the buried city, and any game master who wishes to deal with prior events is essentially left to his own devices. Starting the game in media res has the advantage of bringing the players straight into the action and is also good for tournament play, but it also robs them of the opportunity to gather information, plan their expedition, and equip themselves accordingly. Consequently, whatever knowledge the player characters have is entirely at the discretion of the game master. For my part, I tend to run modules independently of campaigns and do not want to spend a lot of time setting up the story, so I favour this approach; nonetheless, anyone used to having more elaborate plot hooks provided may feel the lack.

The opening encounter with the Scourge of Ninurta is problematic; it is scripted so that the adventurers quickly recognise they are outmatched and flee into the palace. If they choose to make a fight of it, or run in a different direction, they will almost certainly be slain, because the guardian is an eight hit dice monster with more than fifty hit points and a movement rate of twelve. Even if the game master uses Nebu to show the players the “right” course of action, there will almost certainly be casualties, and a party lacking hirelings is likely to suffer. However, the real problem with this encounter is that even once the adventurers acquire the golden auroch, which weighs five hundred pounds, the guardian has no reason to allow them to leave with it, short of a deus ex machina. Unfortunately, the prescribing does not end with the party being funnelled into the palace; poor Nebu is destined to dramatically die at the hands of a new monster, a dust para-elemental. Happily, this event is unimportant, easily ignored, and the only other scripted portion of the module.

Despite the rather heavy handed introduction, the dungeon itself is designed to be explored in a much more open and traditional manner. The player characters are presented with a number of directional choices, and could potentially locate the auroch with relatively little in the way of combat. The dust para-elemental will shadow the adventurers, moving between encounter areas to ambush them at opportune moments. However, once it is defeated they are relatively free to rest and recoup as their rations allow, as there are no other wandering monsters in the palace. Therefore, the way in which the game master handles the dust para-elemental has the potential to significantly affect the difficulty of the other encounters with regard to the renewable resources available, particularly spells. That said, with the Scourge of Ninurta awaiting them outside, other opportunities for rest are decidedly limited, making the eventual destruction of the dust para-elemental a virtual necessity for a successful outcome, its role as the guardian of the golden auroch not withstanding.

In addition to the Scourge of Ninurta and the dust para-elemental, adventurers may encounter a number of diverse monsters, including an animated iron maiden, a horde of carnivorous beetles, and an enraged magmin. The golden auroch itself is protected by a seething nest of vipers, whose venomous bite could easily confer an unpleasant death. However, the most dangerous foe in the dungeon is the sorceress Nicrotis, former queen of Ur. What remains of her mortal shell is almost entirely confined to her throne and slowly crumbling away, but as a sorceress she is still a potent threat. Nicrotis’ aim is to persuade the player characters, by means fair or foul, to complete the ritual that she failed to finish and fully open a portal to the para-elemental plane of dust. Of course, complying with her wishes is inadvisable, resulting in the restoration of her corporeal form amongst other misfortunes, but an unsuspecting party may well be fooled. In the original version of the Golden Auroch, players could defer to a character skill to determine Nicrotis’ true intentions, but under the first edition paradigm they must rely on their own intuition, a by far preferable situation.

Conceptually, this adventure is great. A divinely cursed and desert buried city serving as both the prison and the tomb of a desiccated sorceress queen is a premise almost guaranteed to fire the imagination. The ruins of Ur could easily be expanded and developed into a major adventure location by an enterprising game master. The conversion work is excellent, each encounter being a suitable challenge to a well organised party without being impossible for a group of new players. However, an unseasoned game master might find running the adventure difficult. Using the dust para-elemental as intended requires experience and skill, and the same could be said of the Scourge of Ninurta. Of course, dealing with challenges is the principal means by which such skills are acquired, and the text provides some pointers here and there, so there is little reason to dwell on that overlong. As written, the Golden Auroch is a good module, and my principle complaint is that it is not longer, as it seems to me that this is only the kernel of what it potentially could be.

Tower of the Black Pearl

The focus of this adventure is the exploration of an underwater tower that emerges from the ocean once a decade. Should the inherent mystery of such a place prove insufficient, rumours of a black pearl of unusual size and value may entice reluctant player characters. There are three potential plot hooks presented in the introductory material, each revealing the existence of the tower and a reason to seek it. These may prove useful starting points for a game master who desires to integrate the module into an ongoing campaign, whilst for those wishing to move directly to the dungeon proper they do good service as instant background. Although the introductory suggestions are principally methods of involving the adventurers, they also provide differing degrees of information about what they can expect to face. There are three salient details that the game master may reveal; that the black pearl is said to be cursed; that the tower will be accessible for only eight hours before the tides return; and that a notoriously vicious pirate named Savage Quenn is seeking the pearl for his own nefarious ends. Control of this information is significant, as each rumour has the potential to alter how the player characters initially perceive their expedition and its purpose.

There are twelve encounter areas described in the module; the first four correspond to the immediate upper levels of the tower, and are accessed one after the other. The whereabouts of the other eight is more ambiguous because they are accessed from area 1-4 by means of two magical portals. Judging from their size and the fact that they begin to flood if the black pearl is removed from its pedestal, they are most logically situated beneath the tower, but the text leaves this open to interpretation. As with the first four, the remaining eight areas follow one after the other in a linear fashion. A particularly quick thinking or daring party might manage to move directly from 1-6 to 1-10 or 1-11, but there are otherwise virtually no directional decisions for the players to make, which is a bit of a shame. On the other hand, it means that the adventure is very straightforward; the only real problem a prospective game master might face is if the players take a long time to solve some of the puzzles, as my group did. Deciding how to measure the passage of time and whether or when to give hints is crucial.

Savage Quenn and his pirate crew provide the main combat opposition, and are encountered in three groups. The first three stalwarts lie in a stupor atop the tower, having succumbed to the temptation of a cask of rum whilst supposedly guarding the long boat; a second party waits at area 1-5, ready to ambush anybody who steps through the portal; the last group have accompanied their captain as far as area 1-7, where they have been stopped by a great iron door. Additional pirates may also be encountered as a wandering monster result, though the confined quarters of the dungeon will sometimes mandate the use of discretion for the sake of internal consistency. The adventure is designed so that Savage Quenn and his companions have not managed to open the gate by the time the player characters arrive, a fact that prompts him to propose a short term alliance. The text indicates that the pirate captain will betray the party as soon as the door is breached, which I regard as a missed opportunity; far better to have Savage Quenn stretch out his treachery until the black pearl is within his reach, the tower flooding, and everybody scrambling to escape. I ran this encounter as the module suggested, and instantly knew I had made a mistake.

The conversion work for the pirates is good, and corrects an error in the original text whereby they lacked the bows mentioned in the first area description. As veteran fighters armed with short swords and short bows, they are dangerous, but their poor armour class means that they are also vulnerable. Savage Quenn is a somewhat better fighter, but similarly first level, making intimidation and deception his best weapons against the adventurers. In addition to the former crew of the Black Mariah, there are giant rats and animated statues to contend with, as well as a skeletal boatman who takes exception to being short changed. Of these, the statues are new monsters with first edition appropriate statistics.

At various points in the dungeon are puzzles that have to be solved in order to reach the next encounter area, and which have the potential to significantly slow the progress of the player characters. With only forty-eight turns to explore the tower before the tide returns, the speedy resolution of these obstacles is paramount to success. The first challenge is the entrance hatch, as it requires a specific action to unlock, and there are no prompts. It took my group a couple of turns to figure it out by trial and error, but they could have gotten the information from one of the pirates they captured, had they questioned them more insistently. The same party found activating the first portal in area 1-5 more difficult; ignoring the evidence of a recent blood sacrifice, they spent rather a lot of time rearranging the jewels in the hope of activating the portal, and a hint was eventually necessary to get things moving. The traps and tricks in areas 1-7 to 1-10 are fairly straightforward, and some lateral thinking allows the worst of their effects to be mitigated, though it seemed odd that the spear trap in area 1-10 had a reset mechanism that so readily revealed its presence. The final puzzle of the tower is how to reach the black pearl itself, which is separated from potential thieves by thirty feet of water broiling with poisonous sea snakes; if the players have not yet given any thought to the wisdom of stealing the black pearl, this should give them cause.

This adventure falls short in two principal regards; it is too linear, and the main opposition too static. If there was an event timeline, so that reaching the black pearl was a race against time, then linearity would not matter so much. Catching up with, or beating, Savage Quenn to his goal would be the main objective of the adventure, and the players would probably have to make some interesting choices along the way. As written, the pirate captain and his companions will be encountered at area 1-7 regardless of whether the adventurers arrive on turn ten or turn forty. The way that certain elements of the adventure interact with one another also seem a little inconsistent; for instance, how is the tower flooded by the removal of the black pearl, and why do the solars watching over the candles in the hall of mysteries allow them to be extinguished by the flood, but punish characters who maliciously extinguish them? Questions to be answered by the game master, no doubt, but the lack of ready solutions makes things feel a little haphazard. That said, this is not a bad module; the encounters are diverse and well balanced, the concept is interesting, the writing is engaging, and it makes for an entertaining evening of adventure gaming. A bit of work is needed to get the best out of it, but that can be said of a good many traditional modules, and the Tower of the Black Pearl is no different in that respect.

Technicalities and Errors

It is surprising how many editing errors can creep into even a short work, and conversions are prone to introducing new ones, even as they correct mistakes in the original. An example of an inconsistency that was not caught here is the illustration of the dust para-elemental armed with scimitar and round shield on page four of the Golden Auroch, which is faced by a short description indicating that it is “armed with tower shield and spear”. A newly introduced disparity can be found on the cover illustration of Savage Quenn; his scimitar has a guard in the shape of the head of a cat, but is described on page seven as having “a black steel blade” and a “pommel cast in the shape of a cat’s head”. I might also complain that the handout on page ten is somewhat misleading as to the distance separating the adventurers from the black pearl, at least as seems to be implied on the map. Moreover, the map for the Golden Auroch has a wall separating areas 1-12 to 1-15 from the rest of the complex, which is not mentioned in the key and can only be an oversight.

There are occasional inconsistencies in the monster statistic blocks. The animated figurines are listed as having “HD 1d4, HP 2”, whilst the giant rats are listed as “HD 1-4 HP” on the same page, which reads confusingly and should preferably be rendered “HD ½, HP 2 (or 1-4)”, and the same for the poisonous sea snakes and vipers. Similarly, it is superfluous to indicate that the pirates are “HD 1” when they are listed as first level fighters, a convention that is variably repeated with Savage Quenn as “HD 1d10” and Nicrotis as “HD 7”. The pirate captain is also listed as doing “1-8+1” damage with his scimitar and “1-3” damage with his dagger, which ought really to be “2-9” and “1-4” respectively. I suspect that the absence of a damage listing for the skeletons on page seven is a mistake, and in the same vein it is not clear why movement is listed for some monsters and not others.

Although on the whole vestiges of third edition have been excised from this product, they do occasionally crop up here and there. The two references to “chain mail shirts” on page seven of the Tower of the Black Pearl appear to be of that sort, as does the “tower shield” on page five of the Golden Auroch. On the other hand, the vast majority of new monsters read as first edition entries, though I thought the complete removal of damage reduction might have been a little overzealous. The one exception to this is Nicrotis herself, who seems to be partially presented as a seventh level magic-user and partially as a monster entry, which is reminiscent of the way third edition handles such things. A typical monster entry with the notation “casts spells as a seventh level magic user” would perhaps have been clearer, even bearing in mind that no statistics are provided for her “restored” form.


Although I am certainly not without complaints, both of these are good conversions for first edition, and either will provide for an entertaining session with minimal preparation; however they do feel too short, and when I compare the twenty four pages of the Golden Auroch / Tower of the Black Pearl to the sixteen pages of the Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom I am struck by how much more is packed into the latter compared to the former. I do not usually think it appropriate to criticise the use of boxed text, as it is as much a stylistic preference as a functional one, but I think in this case these adventures could have been much improved by the reduction of each entry and the inclusion of more areas. Of course, that is not really a reasonable criticism of a conversion, but it is of the complete product. There is a lot of potential here, and I would have liked to see it more fully realised.

Alternative Reviews: None